Three conservators, three different stories
story and photos by Bruce Rodgers
Our history, culture and view of the world and ourselves are reflected in what we make, be it something that could be labeled art or something made simply to be used. Appreciation can come from its function, either in a practical sense or from its aesthetic presence.
Yet when that object suffers a mishap or deteriorates to the point where such appreciation is threatened, what can be done?
Lovers of antiques can contact the Washington DC-based American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC). Founded in 1972, the organization’s stated goal is “to preserve the material evidence of our past so we can learn from it today and appreciate it in the future.”
On the AIC web site (www.aic.stanford.edu), one will find “Guidelines for Selecting a Conservator” and a form detailing categories, specialties and subgroups — from architecture to paintings to wooden objects — and services rendered from which to chose a conservator. Hundreds are listed, those who have met the AIC’s “Standards of Practice” and follow the organization’s “Code of Ethics,” can be designated as or seeking a “professional associate” or “fellow” ranking.
Many AIC members work solely for museums or state or federal historical agencies — “bench conservators,” one AIC associate called them.
Others are in private practice, accepting clients and the variety of conservation and restorative challenges that go with that. Sometimes their stories are as interesting as the things they work on. Here are three:
Following grandmother and mother
Peggy Van Witt knows the world. She was born in Hollywood, CA — “Chinatown,” she says, to be more precise. But it was a short-lived association. With the death of her father, her mother took her back to Germany. There, her grandmother worked for the Frankfurt Museum.
“It was postwar Europe, everything was flattened. The museum asked her to start doing conservation,” says Van Witt.
Van Witt’s mother became an antique dealer. “She would fix the stuff when I was little. I thought it was such a rotten job but I kind of took to it,” says Van Witt.
By the time she was 12, Van Witt was restoring paintings, all the while seeing the world. “I grew up in Germany, England, Switzerland, Belgium and North Africa, went to German-speaking schools, British boarding schools, Swiss schools. I speak German, French and Dutch.”
Van Witt says this without a hint of pretension.
She attended the overseas branches of the University of Maryland and University of Southern California, and the Art Center College of Design in California, and later became a creative director at Disney. Marriage took her to Switzerland at 22 and the end of a marriage brought her back to the US.
“Meanwhile, I’m restoring paintings on the side because I knew how to do this,” says Van Witt. “It always baffled me that nobody knew how to do it.”
Van Witt’s business took off in Westport, CN and under the tutelage of Arnold Wagner, a noted paintings conservator from New York.
“It was the best thing I ever did. Arnold took to me and I was like the young kid on the block. He was my mentor and brought me along with some of the newer techniques because what I knew was Old World Europe.”
Van Witt studied under Wagner for four years, learning such things as how to correctly “in-paint,” properly remove a dent with a suction cup and work with a laser cleaner. Wagner sponsored Van Witt to help her get a professional associate certificate from the AIC.
Marriage, also, brought Van Witt to Overland Park, KS, where she now does work for a clientele of about a dozen dealers and collectors. She is not for want of work.
Recently, Wayne Farmer, a dealer whose wife owns Parrin & Co. in the 45th & State Line antique district in Kansas City, brought in three paintings he recently purchased for Van Witt to restore. One was by Francis Vandeveer Kughler, an American painter from the 1920s and ‘30s. She immediately pinpointed nicotine on its surface.
“It has kinda of a flat sheen to it,” Van Witt explains, “and you can smell it.
“Sometimes, dealers will varnish over a piece that has nicotine on it to make it look fresh because it looks a little better. But then you have to do a double step and reverse that.”
That’s the basic premise of conservation, says Van Witt — “everything needs to be reversible. I can put everything back, including the dirt. That’s the true test of ‘are you doing it correctly.’”
True conservation and restoration — though not as involved as conservation, says Van Witt — does not do damage and does not bond permanently. Recognizing botched repair jobs on oil paintings isn’t hard if the restoration included using oil paint. Over time, says Van Witt, as the paint oxides, it gets darker and the colors no longer match.
“It eventually cross-links to the original and you can’t get it off anymore, and you have a total mess,” Van Witt says.
Van Witt’s ongoing project is conserving “Portrait of Margaret Ramsey,” a large painting by Allan Ramsey of his wife. Van Witt dates the painting to 1773 and said it was purchased by one of her clients for a few thousand dollars. After 120 hours of conservation work, Van Witt estimates the painting could fetch six figures.
“He (Ramsey) studied in Venice and was like the court painter for Scottish royalty,” says Van Witt. “(The portrait) was very over-painted. I cleaned it and all the damage was revealed. So I started putting it back.
“What I do is only in-paint in the area that’s damaged. It’s like a process of laying cellophane over cellophane until you get to where it keeps the same diffractive index as the original. The diffractive index is the way the light bends through the paint.”
What about brush strokes?
Though there’s a technique for restoring that’s a little bit different than painting like the old masters, Van Witt smiles and adds, “I’m a perfect forger, been painting all my life; I know the masters’ techniques.”
Bringing back the carousel
Sometime in the early 1970s, Rick Parker found himself on the Central Parkway in Dallas, TX at rush hour, in his convertible, getting sick.
Not long before that day, he had graduated from John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR with a BA in broadcasting and art. Parker was working in Dallas as a DJ but the freeway trip brought on an epiphany.
“A semi was in front of me, one behind me and one to each side,” Parker remembers. “I couldn’t breath, and the traffic, and the congestion…that’s it.”
Parker came back to Gentry, AR where five generations before him had settled, “shocked his parents,” and started looking for a job. An area antique dealer gave him a shot fixing furniture. Parker liked the work, was good at it and devoured everything he could find in writing about conservation and restoration techniques.
The antiques dealer had a friend who was a paintings conservator. Dow Pinkston of nearby Springdale was a member of the AIC. Parker asked Pinkston about taking him under his wing.
“Finally, after a lot of arm-twisting, he said, ‘Okay, but bring your own stuff, you’re not working on any of mine,’” says Parker.
From 1977 to 1985, Pinkston worked with Parker while urging him to apply to the Smithsonian Institution to their “Furniture Conservation Training Program.” In 1986, Parker was accepted and completed the program in 1989.
“I was the only one who did not have to go out and do an apprenticeship for a year. I had done it.”
Neither did Parker contemplate working for a museum; settling in wasn’t yet to happen
Instead, he returned to John Brown University and taught a class on the care and conservation of antiques and wooden artifacts. Later, he would be an instructor at the Smithsonian for seven years. And he had his business, first Parker Restoration, then Parker Conservation and Restoration and now what it is today, Parker Conservation Inc.
“I do about 50-50 both furniture and paintings,” Parker says. “In the last 10 years, I’ve done a lot of architectural and historical sites. I’m the county history chairman for this county. We do national register authentications. Right now we’re in the process of putting about 140 sites on the national register.”
Parker’s technical knowledge, professional associations and love of history have made him well known across the country in AIC circles. Sometimes unusual projects come his way.
For the last 15 years, Parker has been working to restore to its original condition the Over-the-Jumps carousel. This rarity consists of 40 hand-carved wooden horses made for a “transportable, track-type carousel” built in the 1920s in North Tonawanda, New York. Somewhere in the carousel’s travels it found itself in Little Rock.
When work on the carousel was put up for bid, Parker’s small company won. His bid entailed keeping all the original paint.
“Other people wanted to come in and strip it down, sand it and repaint it,” says Parker. “That’s one of the real crimes — the color scheme is just bizarre, a ton of different old colors and combinations, no two the same on any horse.”
To determine the original paint, Parker started by taking microscopic cross sections at different places on each horse. “I was able to determine a linseed oil coating over the paint and was able to manipulate the paint off the linseed oil,” Parker says.
“If you’re removing paint on paint, that’s one thing. If you’re removing paint with a varnish interface between your other layer of paint, it’s very easy to get that upper layer of paint off and then use a different type of solution to remove the varnish.”
In the near future, the carousel will go back in operation in Little Rock. Parker isn’t all that happy about it.
“They’re putting a building on it but there’s no climate control of any kind. Those horses are going on 80 years, it (the wood) is getting brittle and you can’t have moisture fluctuations. In the summer in Little Rock, hot bodies are going to be all over this — it’s going to be a sacrificial seat; it’s going to be used…people don’t understand what is reversible coating.”
Later, Parker notes, “There are times when you really feel you’re getting used and abused.” He believes there’s more of a fear of history than an appreciation, and he purposely likes to touch the objects he works on.
“When I’m picking a piece up, I like to feel the tool marks from carving. You look at the angles and you can tell whether the person was left handed or right handed. When touching the object, you start identifying what type of backsaw the guy was using, how many teeth per inch it had…it’s all right there. It’s just weird.”
Art needs a frame
Bob Hamon sold his first painting in high school. He doesn’t paint much now and never really got into it as a career choice, though when looking at photographs of some of his original paintings, one is forced to ask why?
“I’ve pretty much devoted my interest to this,” answers Hamon.
Hamon creates, repair and restores frames. Much of his work is custom mirror frames and creating what Hamon calls “authentic period frames” from a 16th century Dutch frame to a Parisian Trumeau.
Conservation work takes up a small percentage of his business, Classic Art and Mirrors, located in Mission, KS. Hamon says he is in discussions with a local museum about doing some frame conservation.
Hamon’s art led him to framing. He started framing his own art at a do-it-yourself shop in Little Rock. He liked it and thus began a series of jobs in various frame shops learning more, which at one point included owning a shop in Fayetteville, AR.
Hamon decided to attend the University of Arkansas to get a degree in art. With that, he became interested in paintings conservation. Hamon contacted the National Gallery of Art about talking with a paintings conservator.
As fate would have it, the paintings conservator was ill the day Hamon was to met with him.
“They said, ‘Well, if you don’t mind we have a frames conservator and you could visit with him.’
“So I did and it was like this whole new world opened up to me,” remembers Hamon. “Here’s a guy working with frames, taking frames they have in their collection and doing conservation and repair to the frames. This gentleman was from England and it was like, ‘This is it.’”
But returning to the National Gallery to study didn’t happen. Instead, Hamon took a job with R. Wayne Reynolds, a noted frame shop in Baltimore. While at R. Wayne Reynolds, Hamon felt he learned more in a shorter time there than studying in the “slower environment of a museum.”
In the late 1980s, the company began working on frames designed by Georgia O’Keeffe to be part of a traveling exhibit of the artist’s work. The curator wanted the look of the paintings — in their frames — to be consistent.
“They were leafed in palladium, which is a metal basically like platinum so it wouldn’t tarnish,” says Hamon.
When Hamon later saw the exhibit, he was amazed. “When the light came down and hit the frame, the curvature (of the frame) made the wall glow all the way around the painting. Because all her paintings have this mystical look to them, this glowing effect just made them unreal.”
After Baltimore, Hamon went to New Orleans and operated a successful frame shop there. In 2002, he moved to Mission with his wife Maren. Though most of his time is taken up creating new frames/mirrors for a clientele of interior designers, Hamon still considers himself “traditionally trained with all the old methods,” including making gesso, a substance made from rabbit skin glue, French chalk and water.
“Back then, say the 1600s, they would form the basic shape of the frame and carve the pattern. After it was carved, then it was gessoed and the gesso would be carved to help define the areas,” says Hamon.
“Those are truly the most valuable frames because they are hand-carved and ultimately they will always gilt.”
But synthetic materials are replacing gesso. “The only people who care about it are the museums and collectors,” laments Hamon.
Still, as his business evolves, Hamon keeps to the moral he’s learned in his years in making, restoring and conserving frames:
“Poor art is rarely in an inexpensive frame.”